Upcoming holiday keeps feds busy at ports

HOUSTON – They come from places like Mexico and Columbia, but many never make it past their ports of entry. Some are incinerated. Some are sent home, and others are fumigated and then sent to their intended destination.

For the US Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, the days leading up to Valentine’s Day some of the busiest of the year.

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Customs and Border protection agriculture specialists Stephen Morris and Jennifer Murrell, at Bush Intercontinental Airport Houston are inspecting bundle after bundle of mainly roses, turning them upside down and gently shaking and tapping them as they check for foreign plant disease and pests that are not already in the U.S.

“These insects are not common here in the US and they can cause devastating damage to US agriculture,” Morris said.

They are also trying to prevent plant diseases like a citrus canker in Florida that is devastating crops.

To prevent spread to other plants, the boxes that may contain insects are stored in coolers at temperatures in the thirties.

“Insects that cold go dormant and don’t move between the boxes,” Morris said.
“About a week ago, we got some good insects out of flower shipments from Columbia,” Morris said.

He described the pest like a “moth larvae” that eats the flowers and leaves and eventually kills the crops, or flowers.

“We give the importer three options, send them back to their country of origin, fumigate them, or destroy the flowers by incineration,” Morris said.

The importer of the Columbian flowers chose destruction.

Most of the roses are arriving in the Houston area this time of year are from the warmer climates of Mexico and Ecuador, Morris said. The number of flowers passing through this time of year is usually tripled and then some compared to the typical daily amount.

The shipment arrives, and goes to a warehouse where the importer meets Customs officials and presents their documents. The agents break down the flowers and inspect them, collecting any insects for identification. A hold is placed on the shipment and if something is found in the shipment, the importer has the previously mentioned choices. If nothing is found, the shipment is released to the importer.

According to national CBP spokesperson Yolanda Choates, during the 2009 Valentine’s season, the agency processed about 148.5 million cut flower stems.

“Our agriculture specialists are specially trained in entomology, botany and other scientific fields,” said CBP Field Operations Director Jeffrey O. Baldwin, Sr. “Their careful attention to detail allows them to identify even microscopic pests and plant disease preventing their introduction and potential devastation to the nation’s agriculture.”

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